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Composed: 1861; 1937
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, and xylophone), and strings
In a series of lectures from 1947 entitled “Brahms the Progressive,” Arnold Schoenberg relates an instance of Brahms dealing with one of his fans. “Contemporaries found various ways to annoy him,” writes Schoenberg of Brahms. “A musician or a music lover might intend to display his own great understanding, good judgment of music, and acquaintance with ‘some’ of Brahms’ music. Hence he dared say he had observed that Brahms’ First Piano Sonata was very similar to Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. No wonder that Brahms, in his straightforward manner, spoke out: ‘Every jackass notices that!’ ”
You don’t have to know about either composer or his works to understand why Brahms might sour at such a comment. He spent much of his life having his place in the history of German music found for him by others. His First Symphony was called “Beethoven’s Tenth.” To Wagner’s detractors, Brahms represented everything that was good about German music and to Wagner’s fans, everything that was bad about it. It’s easy to point out the commonalities between Brahms and the generations that preceded him; ?nding what makes him a unique, progressive force in German music takes a bit more effort, and that was the point of Schoenberg’s lectures, and, in a sense, of his orchestration of one of Brahms’ chamber masterpieces.
Brahms’ Quartet had its premiere in Hamburg in 1861; Schoenberg orchestrated the work in 1937, and it was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of then-Music Director Otto Klemperer at one of the Orchestra’s Saturday Evening Concerts. Schoenberg explained the rationale behind his orchestration in a letter to Alfred Frankenstein, the music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, almost a year after the premiere:
“1. I like the piece
“2. It is seldom played
“3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.”
Schoenberg liked the piece as a great example of “developing variation,” a Brahms innovation he discussed in his talks on “Brahms the Progressive.” The idea is really quite simple: Brahms would subject his thematic material to variations and transformations as soon as he introduced them, rather than waiting until the development section of a sonata-form movement. This allowed him to create larger structures from these constantly-developing materials.
An example comes right at the opening of the ?rst movement. Brahms introduces a four-note motive that becomes the basis of the entire movement, undergoing numerous transformations throughout. The second movement intermezzo is the type of movement Brahms would ?ne-tune over the course of his career as a replacement for the traditional scherzo; it moves at a relaxed pace and exudes a warm elegance. The Andante con moto is a slow movement entirely typical of Brahms, radiant and serene. Schoenberg’s orchestral setting opens with a solo violin, a texture favored by Brahms in some of the slow movements of his symphonies. In fact, all three movements, aside from some cymbal crashes during the climactic pages of the ?rst, could have been orchestrated by Brahms, although Schoenberg does favor some instrumental contributions that would have been a stretch in 1861. The ?nale, a “gypsy rondo,” is exhilarating and ?ery, permeated by rhythm and given a suitably exciting treatment by Schoenberg, who really lets loose with a percussion section that, until now, he has held in check. When Klemperer premiered the score, he thought the orchestration a great success. He declared: “You can’t even hear the original quartet, so beautiful is the arrangement.”
John Mangum is Artistic Administrator for the New York Philharmonic.